“The biggest day on the internet ever,” at least according to Jumperoo62, a commenter on the British gossip forum Tattle.life, took place last November. The rabbit hole of a site where 53,000-plus members dissect the lives of influencers with the meticulous if selective attention of Renaissance cartographers was consistently critical and often cruel.

The Tattle Lifers were never disinterested. They were always distant observers. Until last November, when the site went from being a lesser moon in the influencer solar system to playing a central role in a rapidly unraveling series of events one commenter dubbed Instamumistan. “Inject this shit into my veins,” wrote Swipe Up! “Better than a soap opera,” wrote Plinkplonk. It was also, quite possibly, one of the worst days of Clemmie Hooper’s life.

At the time, Hooper, a 35-year-old midwife and mother of four with blunt bangs and attractive features, had around 660,000 followers on Instagram, where she posted as @mother_of_ daughters (or MOD).

Clemmie Hooper attends a London event in 2018.

David M. Benett

Her husband, Simon, a sometimes goofy, scruffily handsome operations director for a consultancy firm, drew around a million followers to his own account, @father_ of_daughters. Clemmie also had a birth-focused podcast, a best-selling book called How to Grow a Baby and Push It Out, and a blog, Gas & Air, where she shared birth stories, promoted body positivity, and offered honest-sounding tidbits of her own life as a mom (like admitting in one vacation blog post “I’d rather be at work”).

On Gas & Air’s About page, she can still be found exuding the trademark mumfluencer blend of aspirational and approachable, seated at an uncluttered desk amid a palette of millennial pink and plants. On the wall behind her is a framed drawing of a woman with similar bangs and the scrawled words “Be Kind.”

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Tattle.life, though, presented an inverse reality. On threads with titles like “Part time parents full time grifters,” commenters took issue with Clemmie’s mothering, her outfits, her weight, the decor of her home, her recipe for avocado toast, even her spelling (“Chest of draws?” wrote Breakdance Badass. “That’s not dyslexia it’s is [sic] stupidity.” “Utter laziness,” agreed Mustard). According to the TL commenters, Clemmie’s husband, Simon (whom they often referred to as “Slymon”), was an unfunny fool whose bath-time pics and oversharing about potty-training travails were ruining his children’s lives.

Then there was AliceinWanderlust: “I agree her passion shines through when she talks about her work,” she wrote about MOD in February of last year. “I for one found her menstrual cup post really insightful and learnt loads,” she wrote a few days later.

A commenter eventually asked outright what others had danced around: Was AliceinWanderlust Clemmie? Alice vehemently denied the accusation—the idea was so absurd she posted a ROTFL emoji. But in March of last year, a Tattle.life moderator posted to announce “Alice” had been banned, citing “suspect things logged on the back end.” A few months later, the same moderator explained that site administrators had noticed AliceinWanderlust, who’d once claimed all her family could afford was “camping in Devon,” logging in to Tattle.life from a tropical island Clemmie was also Instagramming from at the time.

“Was AliceinWanderlust Clemmie?”

The problem was that on top of creating an account to defend herself, Clemmie was also using it to put down other influencers, even ones she knew personally. “Smug as fuck that #gifted ski trip made me want to stick frozen icicles in my eyes,” she wrote about a post from interior design blogger @pinkhouseliving, whom she’d previously collaborated with on a post.

“Candice is often really aggressive and always brings it back to race, priveldge [sic] and class because she knows no one will argue with that,” she’d posted about Candice Brathwaite, an influencer Clemmie had invited onto her podcast to discuss the high death rate of pregnant black women.

It took a while for all this information to reach Clemmie’s fellow mumfluencers, but once it did, they took to Instagram en masse to denounce her. “Dear Alice,” wrote blogger Laura Rutherford. “You’ve looked me in the eye and asked me how I’m doing when I’ve been at my lowest. How dare you?”

“She got sucked in, but I think she started to enjoy it.”

This, then, was Instamumistan. Sure, the commenter who likened the endless scroll of melodramatic gossip to a protracted war was participating in a particularly internet-y form of hyperbole. But it was a virtual explosion few could look away from.

The story spread from Tattle.life to Instagram to mainstream newspapers and back again. Clemmie did post a brief apology in her Instagram Story, explaining that after coming across threads about her family on Tattle.life, she’d become “extremely paranoid” and had opened an anonymous account. “When the users started to suspect it was me, I made the mistake of commenting about others,” she wrote. “I am just so sorry.”

This did nothing to stem the outrage. “It’s a classic case of someone who’s been victimized turning perpetrator,” an “insider” told Grazia Daily. “She got sucked in, but I think she started to enjoy it.” The day after the news broke, two people on Tattle.life wrote that they’d dreamed about it.

The timeline Clemmie offered in her apology didn’t entirely add up. She’d joined shortly before a thread about MOD and FOD even existed, and her first comments were exclusively about another influencer, Cash Carraway. But undoubtedly, as she admitted in her apology, she “got lost in this online world.” Her sock puppet account had gone so far as to describe Simon as a “class A twat, I can’t believe she puts up with his nonsense.”

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Amid the chaos, Simon put up a post of his own: “I’ve seen firsthand what three years of being attacked online can do to a person and the dark places it can drive you to—I guess whereas I can happily ignore it all, she couldn’t…. This has impacted our family and it will take some time to recover.” Two days later, he returned to social media with a video titled “Hairbands: Where the Hell Do They All Go?!” Clemmie’s account has been inactive ever since.

Reading through AliceinWanderlust’s posts now feels like watching the part of the horror movie where the woman starts down the basement stairs. There aren’t any good excuses for what she did, but it’s easy to imagine how it happened. How a cloak of anonymity might seem particularly appealing to someone who’s made her “real life” public, and how attacks about your parenting could be particularly hard to slough off. How you’d scramble to slip back into invisibility after being discovered, feeling a vertiginous dread that aspects you’d rather keep hidden—your spitefulness, perhaps, or the person you are late at night after the kids are asleep, your face lit only by the blue light of your phone—might be revealed.

But I don’t actually know if this was the case for Clemmie. When I reached out to her PR person, whom she shares with her husband, I was told they weren’t doing any press. None of the other influencers involved would speak to me, either.

What I do know is that while the generally accepted story line has been that what happened with Clemmie was an aberration, it’s actually quite common. “In the last couple of years, I’ve given interviews regarding this exact situation,” says Crystal Abidin, PhD, a digital anthropologist and ethnographer of internet cultures at Curtin University in Australia. Alice Wright, who runs GOMI, a U.S.-based equivalent to Tattle.life, told me the same thing has happened more than once on her site.

“I mean, I’m 38 years old, and I put sparkle filter on my face.”

The more I scrolled through Clemmie’s digital detritus, in fact, the more her story seemed to represent not only the pressures experienced by influencers, but the insecurities, incentives, and impulses all parents must navigate as they engage with platforms that have the ability to make otherwise mature adults act like teenagers. Writer and influencer Jordan Reid, also known as @ramshackleglam, laughed when I asked her about this, as if it were so self-evident it hardly bore discussing. “I mean, I’m 38 years old and I put sparkle filter on my face,” she says.

By 2010, almost a quarter of children worldwide had begun their digital lives via sonograms their parents posted online, according to a survey conducted by the internet security firm AVG. By the time the average child turned five, a more recent British study found, nearly 1,500 images of them had been shared. The content we post of our kids is the kind we’d never post of a friend without asking. We show them on the floor crying or dancing by themselves, unaware they’re being photographed. We show them smiling in the bath, a peach emoji over their butts. We do this to build community, to show off, to allay boredom, to build our brand. But we also do this because our norms have been shaped by parent influencers, who post photos of their kids for the same reasons the rest of us do, along with one additional incentive: money.

“Baby pics drive clicks,” a recent New York Times opinion piece quipped. Or as Clemmie told a reporter in 2018, regarding her two youngest children and social media engagement numbers: “Anything with the twins is amazing.”

There are now 4.5 million mom influencers in the U.S. according to Mom 2.0 Summit, a professional conference for parenting influencers, and their impact is “like word of mouth on steroids,” the president and founder of a creative agency told Money magazine in 2018. Two years ago, when I posted the first photo of my then one-month-old son on Facebook, it felt almost obligatory. I’d written it on my to-do list, in between figuring out some details of my maternity leave and buying a breast pump. It got twice as many likes as anything else I’d ever put up.

Among the people I know, finding a parent who doesn’t put images of his or her child on social media feels as surprising as finding someone who doesn’t use social media at all. But it doesn’t take much digging to discover why one might abstain. Leah Plunkett, the author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online, told me her concerns fall into three categories: The first involves putting your child at risk of criminal acts like kidnapping or identity theft. (Studies estimate that by 2030, sharenting will be responsible for almost two-thirds of identity fraud against today’s children.)

Sharenthood: Why We Should Think before We Talk about Our Kids Online (Strong Ideas)

The second issue is potentially subjecting kids to actions that are legal but invasive. Baby role-playing, for example, involves people reposting photos of children they’ve found online and offering them up for virtual adoption, pretending to be them, or passing them off as their own kids; there are over 37,000 Instagram posts tagged #babyrp. And the third is that creating a digital presence for children before they’ve had a chance to form their own sense of self can impede their ability to figure out who they are, embarrass them, or worse.

A 2019 Microsoft survey reported that 42 percent of teens in 25 countries have been bothered by something their parents posted about them. (This includes Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter, Apple, who once commented, after Paltrow posted a snap of the two of them, “Mom, we have discussed this. You may not post anything without my consent.”) Plunkett, who works as an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law and as a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, recently heard about a mom whose child, now in middle school, was bullied via printouts of a story the mom had long ago published on her blog.

“It’s a bit chilling, but the concept of a child being a brand extension does come into play.”

For influencers whose livelihoods are tied to the way they package their family online, even thornier issues arise. “It’s a bit chilling, but the concept of a child being a brand extension does come into play,” says Catherine Archer, PhD, a communications researcher at Australia’s Murdoch University. There are also privacy concerns, as well as ethical and financial questions. Do you pay your child? Do children have rights to images of themselves?

Legislation like California’s Coogan Law, passed in 1939, stipulated that 15 percent of a child performer’s earnings be deposited into a trust, and codified issues like schooling, work hours, and time off for young entertainers, but there’s no current analogue for child social media stars. “Even if they are performing their everyday tasks, they really are stepping into a role that’s the equivalent of Shirley Temple on a movie set, with huge money attached,” Plunkett says. “We’ve always had kids performing labor in America. What’s new is that it’s harder to draw the line between what’s labor and what’s family life.”

Some parents have responded by trying to keep their children unidentifiable online. Sara Gaynes Levy, a journalist and mother of a two-year-old, rarely shares photos of her daughter; when she does, her face isn’t visible. At first, this was at her husband’s request, but she’s come to share his worries about privacy. “I probably think more than the average parent about the longevity of this stuff,” she says. “I have an alarmist brain.” (Their decision to buy a baby monitor without Wi-Fi seemed less alarmist after videos emerged last December of people hacking into Amazon’s Ring home-security cameras and taunting children.)

Levy believes keeping her daughter out of her feed has also helped her maintain a broader sense of her own identity. “[Instagram] is like this safe space where I still get to be Sara, who does things not related to my child,” she says.

But the impact all this might have on kids later in life is still unclear. An article in the Atlantic about kids discovering their digital presence reported one 11-year-old’s takeaway: “Everyone’s always watching, and nothing is ever forgotten.” Another girl said she and her friends were excited to find photos of themselves on the internet—“We were like, ‘Whoa, we’re real people.’ ” (Admittedly, I found both statements kind of haunting.) It’s also not certain whether social media is causing new problems, or if we’re just seeing the same old problems playing out in new, more widespread ways.

“I hate the narrative that the internet is bad for you,” says author and pundit Molly Jong-Fast. I’d reached out to her because long before the internet existed, she’d grown up with a mother, novelist Erica Jong, who was such a prototypical sharenter she’d written about the first time Molly got her period. “I hate it because it’s easy.”

It also, obviously, offers all sorts of benefits. When Laurel Pantin, the fashion features director for InStyle magazine, experienced postpartum anxiety and depression, she used the platform “like Tinder, almost,” she says. “I was reaching out to random people who’d recently had babies. It connected me to the outside world at [a point] when in reality I was very isolated and vulnerable.” Her feed currently broadcasts pics of her now two-year-old son, selfies, and occasional paid posts to over 39,000 followers, but she follows a set of self-imposed rules. “I just try to not embarrass my son or my husband, and to be as honest as possible,” she says.

An odd thing I noticed as I worked on this piece was that the closer a person’s presentation of her parenthood hewed to my own aspirations, the less I was able to notice the artifice. One woman, an influencer with more than 18,000 followers who seemed to have experienced new motherhood as a time of gauzy, earthy ease, often posted photos of herself doing things like breastfeeding while leaning against a table full of vegetables at a natural food store, or cradling her infant in a camper van while on a presumably sponsored road trip. To me, a road trip with a newborn sounded both emotionally draining and logistically confounding. Where was the car seat? How did they do the laundry? Yet looking at her photos, I still believed them.

Even some influencers, intimately familiar with the curation that goes on behind the scenes, aren’t immune to such feelings. Reid, aka @ramshackleglam, a mother of two, tells me that since her marriage ended in 2018, she’s started using Instagram more, and while “I’m not proud to say it,” she says, she now finds photos of happy-seeming families irritating. “It makes me think that maybe if I had just tried harder, I could have had that, too,” she says. A friend eventually pointed out that her feed likely used to make other people feel the same way. “That really struck me—that I could have created those emotions in people without meaning to, or believing I had the ability to.”

Reid, who has 100,000 Instagram followers, has never been comfortable with the platform. “I want it to die,” she says. In part, her antipathy stems from her belief that it shapes people’s interactions with their kids. She recently watched a mother notice her children doing something cute, take out her phone, and ask them to do it again, but in front of a prettier wall. “I’m sure I have done the same thing, but seeing it from the outside was a little watershed moment,” she says.

The Big Activity Book for Digital Detox

Reid recently coauthored The Big Activity Book for Digital Detox, though she admits, “I’m better at writing about it than doing it.” She lives in Malibu, “a walking, talking Kodak moment all the time,” and often takes her kids to the beach. The other day, as they arrived, Reid realized she’d forgotten her phone. She was about to turn around but changed her mind. Instead, her kids made castles out of sticks, and nobody saw them but her. She hadn’t played with them like that in a long time.

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*This article has been updated from a previous version and appears in the May 2020 issue of ELLE.


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